Here is the ninth and final episode of Dr Michael Apichella’s adventure novel The Chronicles of Johnny Pilgrim, which is set in Bury St Edmunds.
Two escaping slaves, Amara and Talib, save Johnny’s life after he is bitten by a venomous copperhead snake, fulfilling the blind beggar’s prophesy in Chapter 2.Needing a white man to travel openly by day, they ask Johnny to travel with them to St. Anthony’s Wilderness where they are to meet a guide who will go with them into Canada and freedom. Johnny, having himself been a slave in Africa, agrees, and, risking his own freedom, joins with the pair, pretending he is their owner. In turn, Amara and Talib use their survival skills so the three may subsist in the wild, uncharted lands.
At long last, the three reached a tree-lined ridge dominated by a stack of silvery boulders, the so-called ‘Mile Rocks’ which looked like the great bones of a prehistoric stegosaurus which had expired on that elevation.
Within minutes, they found the next safe house, a wooden shanty hidden behind thick briars. Inside they found blankets, food and other supplies. Now all they had to do was wait until their guide came to lead Talib and Amara to freedom.
Exhausted, Johnny went to bed early. Hunkering down in a woollen blanket, he turned his face to the wall and felt tears welling in his eyes at the thought having left Anna without so much as a goodbye.
Doubtless, she would be hurt and confused. He had never met anyone quite like her, and while it was too soon to dare call it love, the affection he felt for her was real.
He peered through loose slats into the black, star-studded sky and spoke audibly into the holy silence. ‘Please, let Anna and me meet again someday.’
Voices from somewhere outside pulled Johnny from a dreamless slumber. He joined Talib and Amara who peered into the early morning light through a window. ‘Two men and a girl,’ said Talib.
‘Upon my soul! I know them. Ho, Jakob, Anna, Mordechai. ‘Tis I, Johnny Pilgrim!’
Over a hearty breakfast of roasted duck, wild rice and dried blackberries, the six talked all at once, each asking questions or explaining his or her own part in this amazing odyssey, with Johnny translating from French to English when Talib or Amara couldn’t follow. Anna alone remained silent and, apparently, unmoved by seeing Johnny again which puzzled the nervous boy.
Practical Mordechai took one last mouthful of rice and clapped his hands. ‘As your guide, I have made arrangements with people who will be on the lookout for us, so we must go.’
‘But I still don’t know why none of you told me sooner you were helping slaves escape into Canada.’
‘Are ye mad as well as daft, lad?’ said Mordechai. ‘Our group must keep it a secret to the grave. I heartily recommend you do the same; for, we are often hunted down and killed because of our work.’
Jakob nodded. ‘And you never know who will turn you in.’
Johnny turned to Mordechai. ‘But a Jew?’
‘You mean a grasping old Shylock such as I, eh, Johnny?’ Mordechai glanced merrily at Jakob.
‘That was not my meaning at all, Sir!’
‘My boy, we Jews invented ethics. If you know the Law of Moses, it may be summed up thusly: “Love the Lord with all your heart, with all your soul, and with your entire mind; and Love your neighbour as yourself.”’
He bestowed an avuncular smile upon Talib and Amara. ‘Meet my neighbours.’
‘Well then, they knew me as their neighbour, too, for more than once they saved my life.’
Talib spoke. ‘Yes. But from the first, you risked great harm for the sake of my sister and me, people you hardly know.’
He looked around at the others. ‘I am ashamed to say, until I saw Johnny was willing to die for me, I hated him, along with all white people. For that I repent. Truly.’
‘I agree with my brother,’ said Amara. ‘We owe you and Johnny a great debt.’
Turning bright red, Johnny suddenly recalled something. He reached into his pocket and pulled out Jakob’s five pounds. ‘Speaking of debts, here.’ Jakob made no move to accept the money. ‘I assure you, I had to get away from Bethlehem quickly, having no time to return what is yours. I did not steal it.’
‘If you had been a thief, you wouldn’t have helped these two fine friends. As for the money. You will need it more than I.’
‘I cannot repay you.’
‘Perhaps you can come back to my farm and help with clearing the land.’
‘In that case, I have something more to say.’ Inspired by Talib and Amana’s candid confession, Johnny told them all that occurred to him since that life-transforming night he was pressed into sea duty in St Edmundsbury.
‘Were I to show you my striped back, you’d know me for what I am really, an outlaw. But upon my soul, I am truly sorry for my many mischiefs.’
Mordechai, every inch the rabbi, was first to respond.
‘Hakarat hatov, I recognise the good.’ He removed his hat, revealing his yarmulke. ‘Doubtless there are mitigating circumstances a foot here. After all, the first harm was done to you when you were kidnapped.
In the second instance, you were punished with the lash for your insubordination on the ship, so your debt is paid.’ He cut the air with his hand. ‘And finally, you risked your freedom to return to your ship to report this Captain Pollard’s whereabouts. Facts never harm a just cause.’
‘Is that in the Torah, Mordechai?’
‘Oh no, Jakob. I just coined the phrase.’
‘Well it ought to be. In fact, it could be argued that all of us are lawbreakers by helping runaway slaves get to Canada.
But isn’t human life above the law of the land when the law is clearly corrupted? For soothe, even our Lord was a law-breaker. Jesus healed a crippled man on the Sabbath – but he did it out of compassion.’
Mordechai slapped his knees. ‘We rabbis love fierce debates on the minutiae of the Law. But it really is time to go.’ Standing he bowed to the company.
Amara rushed up to Johnny and hugged him. ‘Talib and I, too, are law breakers, Johnny. The law says we should remain with our master.’
‘Do not fret, Amara. Like Jakob said, some laws we must break the way Jesus did,’ replied Mordechai. ‘I must try to learn more about this rabbi. But not today.’
With that Talib and Amara collected their things, and they turned and followed Mordechai along a sloping, well-worn deer track down from the ridge into the forest spreading out before them like a great green and brown quilt.
Johnny watched until they were long gone. Anna stood by him now, at last finding it in her heart to forgive him for his unexpected disappearance with her father’s five pounds. Glancing at her cautiously, Johnny raised his eyebrows. ‘May we talk?’
‘I was hoping you’d want to.’
He pointed with his chin. ‘Up there on the top of the rocks where we can be private.’
‘As I say, I’m so ashamed of myself, Anna’
‘Don’t be. You heard the others. You broke laws for a greater good.’
‘I wish that were so, dear Anna. May I call you dear?’
‘Oh yes. I longed for you to. Say it to me again.’
He took her hands in his. ‘Oh, Anna, my dear, Anna. The wrongdoings I admitted to – those may be justified. Yes. But one crime I could not confess, so I tell you now.’
He hung his head. ‘Before I was impressed, I robbed my dear bother Roger of 60 guineas. And while it is true he now lives comfortably on our late father’s great wealth, I am still guilty of stealing money I have since lost, so I cannot give it back.’
‘Johnny, if he is your brother, he will forgive you that debt.’
‘I know it. And, indeed, he might have given the money to me in the first instance and more of his own volition had I not acted hastily in the first instance. Still, I am undone by my corruption.’
‘Oh! How my heart aches for you!’
Johnny slipped his arms around her waist and hugged her like his heart would stop beating if he were to let go, and when she turned up her tear-stained face, he placed his lips on hers tasting salt.
‘Johnny, you and I. Together, we may go into the western frontier.’ She gazed to the west. ‘I know the land well.’ She pointed to the mountains rising like humpback whales, blotting out the pale blue skies.
‘Together, we may take a horse and cross over the Susquehanna River. There we may live away from people entirely for ourselves. And, if we have children, we’ll live for them, shunning all else.’ She pressed her face on his shoulder wetting his shirt with bitter tears.
‘Dear Anna. Just like the time you told me you did not wish to have an education. I did not believe you then. I don’t believe what you say now. Even if the feeling behind it is real. For I would love nothing more than to run away with you.’
‘Yet, I see now, there is no “away.” Not from oneself at any rate. Nay, if there is one thing I have learned, it is that. My heart is not in still more running away.’
She breathed a sigh of relief. ‘I am glad to hear you say that.’ Composing herself, she continued. ‘Tempting as it is to live selfishly, my father taught me we are not placed on earth for that purpose. It leads to a kind of living death. What’s more, as you have seen, I am needed here. Even if it means forgoing my own personal happiness.’ She placed her hand on her breast. ‘I feel it in here. If I denied it, something deeply within me would only fester. Maybe not today or even tomorrow. But someday soon. And it would come between us.’
‘And for my part, it is much the same. Much as I dread it, I know now if I am to have any kind of tomorrow, I must first return to England and face the consequences.’
‘Perhaps even prison?’ He nodded solemnly. ‘No, dear Johnny.’ Ignoring her honourable principles her tears ran down her freckled cheeks like raindrops on a window pane. ‘I love you. I want you to stay with me.’
Johnny couldn’t hide his tears either. ‘I shall come back, Anna. I shall. And I swear, if you want me then, I will be yours.’
‘Yes, come ye back. To me.’
‘And if you still feel as you do now,’ Johnny said, ‘then perhaps we can marry and continue working with your father and Mordechai and the others until the last slave is freed. Surely that would be a life well spent.’
© 2016, Michael Apichella, All Rights Reserved.